Growing up on the outskirts of London, I spent my geeky teenage years hunting down its most obscure museums and galleries. Many years later, nothing has changed. Whenever I’m in the city, I slink away from the busy V&A and the kid-crammed Science Museum to far-flung spots such as the London Canal Museum and the Kew Bridge Steam Museum. While I never run out of places to try – I’ve earmarked the Garden Museum for my next visit – there are some hot spots I love returning to.
Among my favourites is the William Morris Gallery (wmgallery.org.uk). Occupying the grand Whalthamstow villa where the father of England’s Arts and Crafts movement grew up, it’s a free-entry showcase of his decorative oeuvre, from stained glass to illustrated books. Morris nuts should also hit Bexleyheath’s Red House (nationaltrust.org.uk/redhouse), the delightful redbrick manor he built with his creative chums.
House museums, of course, are among London’s best small cultural attractions, illuminating the lives of some illustrious past residents. Just off Fleet Street, Dr. Johnson’s House (drjohnsonshouse.org) is the handsome, creaky-floored home where the writer of the first English dictionary crafted his definitions. He often sought inspiration in the Cheshire Cheese pub just around the corner.
The fascinating Charles Dickens Museum (dickensmuseum.com), colonizing the home where the author completed Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, recently reopened after renovations. Alternatively, the celebrated Sir John Soane’s Museum (soane.org) is a preserved house plus a feast of antiquities collected by the architect who designed the Bank of England building (which also has a small museum).
Also consider the Freud Museum (freud.org.uk), where the father of psychoanalysis spent his final years. The modest home bristles with evocative artifacts, including Freud’s infamous couch. And don’t miss Dennis Severs’ House (dennissevershouse.co.uk) where the rooms recall different eras and – with lit fires and half-eaten meals – it feels like the inhabitants are still around. Evening candlelit tours are recommended here.
London also has a surfeit of medical museums. Try the Old Operating Theatre Museum (thegarret.org.uk) with its frightening 1822-built surgery room centred on a pre-anesthesia “butcher-block” operating table. Or hit the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum, where oddball artifacts include Churchill’s false teeth. See medicalmuseums.org for more than 20 additional London medical attractions.
But if navigating the city’s labyrinthine transit network seems arduous, I have a solution: East London’s Overground line (a mostly above-ground alternative to the Tube) weaves from Highbury & Islington Station alongside 11 small, free-entry museums and galleries. Also dubbed the Culture Line (cultureline.org.uk), you can hop on and off with a one-day Travelcard transit pass. Trains run every few minutes and attractions are rarely far from the stations.
Highlights include the Geffrye Museum (geffrye-museum.org.uk), recreated room interiors from 1630 to the 1990s (there’s also a good café here) plus the well-hidden Royal London Hospital Museum where the hood and hat of Elephant Man John Merrick – its most famous patient – is displayed. Ask at the hospital’s information desk for museum directions.
The line’s tiny Thames-side Brunel Museum (brunel-museum.org.uk) illuminates the construction of the world’s first major underwater tunnel. The engineering marvel opened in 1843 and trains (including the one you’ve arrived on) still use it. Next, you’ll roll into Forest Hill where an uphill walk delivers the smashing Horniman Museum (horniman.ac.uk), displaying everything from medieval torture implements to taxidermy.
Finally, don’t miss the line’s short branch diversion to Crystal Palace Station. Learn about the infamous but long-gone 19th-century glass exhibition hall at Crystal Palace Museum (crystalpalacemuseum.org.uk), then wander downhill into the park. Between the trees, you’ll spot dozens of life-sized Victorian dinosaur models that were the blockbuster visitor attraction of their day.
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